Every year in the NFL there is a weeding out process, where players are ultimately released or decide that it is time to announce that they have retired from the sport. Some of these retired players have done so on their own terms, while others go out kicking and screaming, wanting to hold on for another year or two longer. But their career had run its course, and nobody wanted to employ them any longer.
Some retirements are the result of father time, as players lose a step over the years. The body can only take so much physical abuse or punishment. Players start to react a little bit slower over the years, and for a game that can frequently come down to a matter of inches, those slower reactions can make all the difference in the world between winning and losing.
Then there are those players that walk away from the sport on their own terms. Hopefully they are going out on top as they have just won the Super Bowl and wish to leave while being considered to be at the top of their profession. Other players that retire too early have their own personal agendas, whether it is time to take on a second career, or perhaps they feel the need to spend more time with their family.
Some retirements are forced due to injuries where the player just can't perform the way he used to, because he physically can't. Keep in mind that as of the 2008 NFL opening-day rosters, the average age of an NFL player was only 26.68 years old. The average NFL career is just 3.5 seasons.
Whatever the reasons were for a player to quit too soon, we are going to look at 25 players in NFL history that we feel left the game too early. If you are aware of others that also could or should have been included in this group, please let us know in the comments.
Barry Sanders, running back of the Detroit Lions, is a good player to start off our list with. Sanders was one of the all-time great running backs in the history of the NFL.
Sanders played his entire career for the Lions, but the problem was that while Sanders was an elite player, the rest of the team was not very good. Sanders had to endure one losing season after another, and the desire to compete and the juices needed to play in the NFL slowly faded away until he decided to walk away from the sport he loved.
Sanders was only one full season away from topping the all-time career rushing totals of Walter Payton. The ironic part was that Sanders was still healthy when he retired, so passing Payton was something that seemed like a realistic goal.
For his career, Sanders gained 15,269 yards on the ground, 2,921 yards in pass receptions and scored 109 total touchdowns (99 rushing TDs and 10 receiving TDs).
Sanders is currently ranked No. 3 all time behind Emmitt Smith and Payton. Sanders did lead the Lions to the playoffs in 1991, but they lost in the NFC Championship Game. Sanders was voted the MVP in 1997. Sanders played in only 10 NFL seasons, from 1989 to 1998.
While Barry Sanders played for 10 seasons in the NFL, Jim Brown, Hall of Fame running back for the Cleveland Browns, only played for nine seasons (1957 to 1965).
When Brown retired, he had already set all of the NFL career rushing records, so there were no major individual records left for him to pursue. He was healthy and wanted to leave football on his own terms, which he did.
One reason that Brown's accomplishments were so amazing was that the NFL regular season was only 12 games long when Brown entered the league. The league expanded to a 14-game regular season in 1961.
Brown was only 29 years old when he retired, and was still in his prime. He still holds many NFL records to this day. To give you an idea of how dominating he was, Brown was named to the Pro Bowl every year of his career. He was the MVP three times. He was NFL First-Team All-Pro eight times. He was on the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. He was a member of the NFL 1960's All-Decade team.
Some of the greatest running backs were able to retire early on their own terms, but some were forced to retire early because of bad injuries. Such was the case with Detroit Lions running back Billy Sims.
Sims was only able to play in the league for five years, 1980 to 1984. During those five years, Sims racked up over 5,000 yards in rushing and was named to the Pro Bowl team three times.
Sims led the Lions to the playoffs in 1982 and 1983, which was a tribute to how much of an impact he made on the team. But Sims suffered a devastating knee injury in 1984 and had to retire half way into that season. No doubt if that injury happened in 2011, he would have been able to continue his career with the advancements in medicine, surgery and rehab processes.
Continuing with our look at running backs, we now focus on Robert Smith, running back of the Minnesota Vikings. Smith played eight years for the Vikings from 1993 to 2000.
Smith was named to two Pro Bowl teams. He has the distinction of leading the NFL in rushing, when he gained 1,521 yards in 2000, and then walked away from the game in the same year. That is one illustration of leaving the game at the peak of your career.
During his career, Smith gained 6,818 yards and scored 32 touchdowns. He averaged 4.8 yards per rush, which is a great statistic that measures how effective a ball carrier he was. Smith's goal was to walk away from the game healthy, and he realized his goal by leaving after the 2000 season.
Bo Jackson knows football. He also knows baseball and how to stay in fantastic shape. Unfortunately, it was due to an injury on the football field that robbed Jackson of many years of production because Jackson was simply an amazing running back.
Jackson was the first athlete that was named an All-Star in two major team sports, which illustrates how great an athlete Jackson was. His NFL career was way too short, lasting only four years, from 1987 to 1990.
Jackson played for the Los Angeles Raiders in those four years and served the Raiders as the backup to Marcus Allen. Despite playing second-string, Jackson saw the ball enough to gain 2,782 rushing yards and score 16 TDs. He averaged a whopping 5.4 yards per carry during his career.
His most memorable game was on Monday Night Football in 1987 against the Seattle Seahawks where he rushed for 221 yards, which set a record for Monday Night Football. He had only been in the league for less than one month. Other highlights of that game was when Jackson flattened Brian Bosworth for a touchdown plunge and sprinting down the sidelines for a 91-yard touchdown and running straight to the locker room.
We will never know how Jackson would have changed the fate of the Raiders' fortunes. In a playoff game in 1990, Jackson injured his hip on a tackle from Kevin Walker of the Cincinnati Bengals. Legend has it that Jackson popped his own hip back into the socket. Bo knows his body, too.
Barry Foster, Pittsburgh Steelers running back, lasted only five years in the NFL from 1990 to 1994. During those five years, Foster was named to the Pro Bowl in 1992 and 1993 and was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Year.
Foster appeared in 62 games, and his career totals were: 3,943 rushing yards in 915 carries for 26 touchdowns and an average of 4.3 yards per carry. Foster also caught 93 passes for 804 yards and scored two touchdowns on receptions.
Foster set the Steelers single-season rushing record in 1992 with 1,690 yards. He also had 12 games that topped 100 yards that year, which also set a Steelers team record. But things started to go downhill after that as he was limited in 1993 and 1994 due to injuries.
He never played in another NFL game after the 1994 season and announced his retirement in 1995, after only five years in the league.
Earl Campbell was a running back for the Houston Oilers and the New Orleans Saints. Campbell played in Houston from 1978 to 1984 and for New Orleans from 1984 to 1985.
After a career that spanned just eight seasons, Campbell retired from football in 1985.
In his first three years in the NFL, Campbell was named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year (1978 to 1980). He was named to five Pro Bowl teams. Campbell was named to the All-Pro team, Pro Bowl team, Rookie of the Year and NFL Player of the Year in 1978, which is a clean sweep. He was just that good.
Campbell led the NFL in rushing for three straight years, despite defenses being set up to stop him specifically. Campbell rushed for 9,407 yards in his career and scored 74 rushing touchdowns. He had four games during the 1980 season where he topped 200 yards in rushing.
Campbell retired before the 1986 season began. Maybe if he took off a year to let his body heal up from all the pounding that he took, he might have been able to come back and been a factor.
Joe Cribbs was a running back for the Buffalo Bills, and he also played briefly with the San Francisco 49ers, Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins. Cribbs played for the Bills from 1980 to 1983 and again in 1985. After that, he had his stops with the 49ers from 1986 to 1987, and he spent time with both the Colts and Dolphins in 1988.
Cribbs may be remembered for the strange career move he made when he left the Bills to play for the Birmingham Stallions of the USFL from 1984 to 1985.
Cribbs was named to three Pro Bowl teams while he played for the Bills (1980, 1981 and 1983). He was named NFL Rookie of the Year in 1980. During his eight-year career, Cribbs gained over 100 yards in a game 13 times and had three 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
Cribbs is the uncle of Joshua Cribbs of the Cleveland Browns.
Christian Okoye was a running back with the Kansas City Chiefs from 1987 to 1992. Okoye only played for six years in the NFL due to his physical running style and injuries he accumulated that forced him out of the game.
Okoye was the NFL's leading rusher in 1989 and was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year. He scored 40 touchdowns, had a career rushing average of 3.9 yards and gained 4,897 yards over his career.
The "Nigerian Nightmare" finally decided to retire because playing in the NFL felt more like a job than something for fun. His knee injuries had also started to impact his effectiveness.
At the time of his retirement, Okoye was the Chiefs all-time leading rusher.
Gayle Sayers was a running back for the Chicago Bears from 1965 to 1971. Sayers seemed to be ready to run for a dozen years or more with his athleticism, but unfortunately, bad knee injuries required him to retire after just seven years in the NFL.
During that short career, Sayers was named to four Pro Bowl teams and was a five-time All-Pro pick. He was a member of the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team and was also on the NFL 1960's All-Decade Team. He was the 1965 NFL Rookie of the Year.
Sayers scored an amazing 22 touchdowns during his rookie season. He scored on runs, pass receptions, punt return and kickoff returns. Sayers had a career rushing average of 5.0 per carry, scored 39 total touchdowns in his career and carried the ball 991 times for a total of 4.956 yards.
His knee injuries were just too damaging and robbed him of his electric running style. It seemed that he was primed to do so much more.
Ickey Woods was a running back for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1988 to 1991. Just a brief whirlwind of a four-year career was all that Woods was able to muster.
But during that time we got the "Ickey Shuffle" and some good football, too. Woods scored 27 touchdowns in his brief career. He rushed for 1,525 yards and had a career average of 4.6 yards per rush. He was named to the 1988 All-Pro team.
Woods started out like gangbusters when he scored 15 touchdowns as a rookie for the Bengals. He rushed for over 1,000 yards that year (1,066) and went on to score three touchdowns in the Bengals' playoff run in 1988. Woods was the leading rusher in Super Bowl XXIII, but the Bengals lost the game.
Woods suffered serious injuries to his left knee in 1989 and then to his right knee in 1991. Woods was replaced by Harold Green and was basically gone from the NFL at 26 years of age. Gone way too soon.
We conclude our run on running backs with Tiki Barber of the New York Giants. Barber, of course, made news in 2011 when he decided that he wanted to come back to the NFL after a long layoff away from the game. Somebody needed to let Barber know that it takes two to tango, and even though he was willing, there were no NFL teams that wanted him, so he remains retired.
Barber played for the New York Giants from 1997 to 2006. Barber enjoyed a 10-year career in the NFL, but even though some thought he was walking away from the game too early, he seemed to be leaving the Giants at the right time.
Barber had the tendency to be quite out-spoken and he was able to burn quite a few bridges when he left the Giants' organization. That might have played a factor in why the rest of the league ignored him when he voiced an interest in playing again.
For his career, Barber made three Pro Bowl teams. He rushed for over 10,000 yards and is the New York Giants' all-time leading rusher. He rushed for 10,449 yards, had a career average of 4.7 yards per rush and scored 55 rushing touchdowns. He caught 586 passes for 5,183 yards and scored 12 touchdowns on receptions.
Le Charles Bentley was a lineman for the New Orleans Saints (2002 to 2005) and for the Cleveland Browns (2006 to 2007).
During his brief NFL career, Bentley played in just 57 games and appeared on two Pro Bowl teams. Sports Illustrated gave him the rare honor of naming an offensive lineman as Offensive Rookie of the Year, but he won that award in 2002. He played both guard and center for the Saints.
Bentley was unhappy playing in New Orleans and left as a free agent. He joined the Browns in 2006, but his career in Cleveland went about the same as the way things have gone for Peyton Hillis this year. From bad to worse.
Bentley suffered a bad injury before the 2006 season started, and then came up with a staph infection that slowed his rehab. He was unable to return from the injury in 2007 and announced in 2009 that he has retired from football. Footnote was that Bentley sued the Browns over a number of other staph infections that occurred at the Browns' facility while he was being treated.
Aaron Schobel was a defensive end for the Buffalo Bills. Schobel played for the Bills from 2001 to 2009. In 2007, the Bills signed Schobel to a lucrative contract extension, which had the ability to pay him nearly $50 million over a seven-year deal. The Bills believed in Schobel that much that they were willing to pay him that much, even though he would have been in his mid-30's when the contract ended.
Schobel was fighting two issues, however. He lived in Texas and he missed seeing his children growing up. He also was getting tired of the losing seasons in Buffalo and not making the playoffs. The Bills offered to fly him back to Texas for specific dates during the season as a way of bridging the gap.
Schobel surprised many Bills fans when he announced that he was going to return to the team in 2010. Schobel was itching to play for a team in Texas and asked the Bills to release him. He was the second all-time leading sacker in Bills team history behind Bruce Smith, and the Bills didn't want to let him walk away for nothing, so they declined.
After some time, the Bills relented and released him. Schobel then had a workout with the Houston Texans in 2010, but he was not in good enough shape, and the Texans didn't sign him. He remains retired today. Schobel was unappreciated around the NFL because he played in obscurity in Buffalo. From 2003-2007, Schobel was second in the NFL in sacks behind only Jason Taylor.
Schobel had three seasons with at least 10 sacks. He was named to the Pro Bowl team in both 2006 and 2007. He made three interceptions over his career.
Tony Boselli was a tackle for the Jacksonville Jaguars from 1995 to 2001. He also played for the Houston Texans in 2002, when they selected Boselli in their expansion draft.
Boselli was the first player ever drafted by the Jacksonville organization. What a great first choice. During his seven-year stay in Jacksonville, Boselli was named to three All-Pro teams, five Pro Bowl teams and was named to the NFL 1990's All-Decade team.
Boselli was injured and never played in a game for Houston. He retired after the 2002 season. He came back in 2006 and signed a one-day contract with the Jaguars so he could retire as a Jaguars player.
Boselli is a great example of a player that saw their career end way too soon due to injury.
Tarik Glenn was an offensive lineman for the Indianapolis Colts and appeared in 154 games for the team from 1997 to 2006. Glenn played 10 years with the Colts and was named to the Pro Bowl team three times. He was also a member of the Colts' winning Super Bowl team in Super Bowl XLI.
Glenn was a reliable starter who regularly played every game except for a knee injury in 2003 that forced him to miss six games.
Glenn was a relatively healthy player after the 2006 season ended, but he decided that he had lost his passion for the game and decide to retire before the 2007 season started.
Brad Butler was an offensive tackle and guard for the Buffalo Bills from 2006 to 2009. Butler surprised many people when he announced his retirement from football just before the start of the 2010 season.
The Bills didn't have much warning from Butler that he was planning to retire or they could have attempted to find a replacement in the draft. Instead, they were forced to scramble to come up with a warm body and settled on Cornell Green, which did not work out very well.
Butler cited his desire to get into politics as the main reason for quitting. He wanted to devote more time to his new career, and that was it. He gave up a starting job in the NFL and just walked away from the game at the age of 27.
Steve Emtman played defensive end for the Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins. Emtman was with the Colts from 1992 to 1994, the Dolphins from 1995 to 1996 and was with the Redskins in 1997.
Emtman was the first-overall draft pick in the 1992 draft. Despite being deemed as the top player, Emtman was only able to last in the league for a mere six seasons. He was plagued with a number of injuries that included both knees and a ruptured neck disc that caused nerve damage.
At the young age of 27, Emtman was already retired from the NFL.
Kurt Warner played quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals. Warner played for the Rams (1998 to 2003), Giants (2004) and the Cardinals (2005 to 2009).
How is it that we can include Warner in the retired too early presentation you ask? Our rationale is that even though he had turned 38 years old when he retired, there were a number of years when he was not playing either in the NFL or in the Arena Football League. His case is quite unique.
Warner holds at least three Super Bowl passing records. His career numbers show that he completed 65.5 percent of his passes. He completed 2,666 out of 4,070 attempts and threw for 32,344 yards. Warner threw 208 touchdowns to just 128 interceptions and had a career QB passer rating of 93.7.
Warner announced his retirement in January 2010. If you watched the replays of his final playoff appearance, you know that he was physically taking a beating out there. His arm might not have felt like he was 38 years old, but I suspect the rest of his body did. Warner also cited that he wanted to spend more time with his family, as he is the father to seven children. Very good reasons.
John Elway was a quarterback for the Denver Broncos. Elway played for the Broncos from 1983 to 1998.
I have seen debates that Elway left the NFL at the right time, and then there are others that feel strongly that he walked away too soon.
Elway's accomplishments are many. He was named to nine Pro Bowl teams. He was a member of the NFL 1990's All-Decade team. He was the NFL MVP in 1987. He won two Super Bowl championships with Denver, in Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII. He was the AFC Offensive Player of the Year in 1987 and 1993.
Elway retired at the age of 38 years old. Unlike Kurt Warner, Elway was active in the NFL the entire duration of his career. He took his lumps and shares of injuries over the years. He walked away from the game after two consecutive Super Bowl Championships. If you can't go out like that, when you are at the pinnacle of your career, when can you ever leave?
Jake Plummer was a quarterback that played for the Arizona Cardinals from 1997 to 2002 and for the Denver Broncos from 2003 to 2006.
Plummer was benched by head coach Mike Shanahan in 2006, in favor of Jay Cutler. With the Broncos going with Cutler, Plummer was expendable, so the Broncos began to explore the market.
Plummer was only 32 years old when the Broncos traded him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2007. But Plummer had no interest in playing for the Bucs, so rather than join the team, he decided instead to retire from the NFL.
Some players leave the NFL for mysterious reasons, and that pretty well describes the Plummer situation.
Al Toon was a wide receiver for the New York Jets, from 1985 to 1992. Toon was just 29 years old when he retired. The reason was multiple concussions. Toon suffered at least nine concussions during his career.
Toon was a gifted receiver. He was AFC Player of the Year in 1986 and was named to three Pro Bowl teams and to three All-Pro teams.
During his career, Toon made 517 catches for 6,605 yards and 31 touchdowns. There is no way for sure to know how much longer his NFL career could have been extended with the current way that concussions are treated and the way that helmets are manufactured to prevent additional concussions.
Otto Graham was a quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. We are including Graham as a tribute to the players of past eras. It is difficult to know how many of the players retired when the time was right and how many retired way too soon.
For starters, I wasn't around to see them play to tell you who left too early. I did watch Jim Brown play as a kid, lucky to see their games since Cleveland was the "local regional" team that the NFL had for the city of Buffalo.
But with athletes learning more and more with each passing decade about how to take better care of themselves, how to train year round and with the advancements of sports medicine, it is conceivable that many of the athletes back in the days of Otto Graham quit playing when they felt they couldn't perform to the levels that they used to.
Marvin Harrison was a wide receiver for the Indianapolis Colts from 1996 to 2008. Harrison lasted 13 years in the NFL, which is a pretty outstanding career for most receivers.
Perhaps it was the way that Peyton Manning hit Harrison in stride that allowed him to catch so many passes and missing as many bone-jarring hits that other receivers have to take in the league. It just seems whenever I saw Harrison making a catch, he would be doing it upright, in stride and would be crossing the goal line standing up.
He sure had lots of practice catching passes from Manning with the Colts. During his career, Harrison caught 1,102 passes for 14,580 yards and 128 touchdowns. He was 36 years old when he retired, which seems like the right time, but there are people like Terrell Owens that are still performing or claiming that they can.
It will be interesting to see what NFL fans think of Harrison being on this list. Did you think he still had years left, or was he just not effective any longer?
Here we are entering Week 11 of the 2011 season, and Peyton Manning, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens have not been on the field for a single snap this year. Who knows, maybe 2010 was the final year of action for this trio, but we won't know that for sure until somewhere further down the road.
If it turns out that none of the three plays again, it would appear to me that Manning and Owens still had more left in their tank and were ready to extend their careers.
Moss appeared to have lost a step during the 2010 season, and the way that he mentally shut it down in 2010 on the Minnesota Vikings and Tennessee Titans was a pretty strong indication that he didn't want to play anymore.
It would not be a surprise to see Chad Ochocinco hang it up after this season as well, as his production has dramatically tailed off as well.
I am sure there are other players that we could have considered for this presentation, so if you have somebody you think should have been in here, please feel free to leave their name in the comments section.